Lily Brett, Only in New York (Hamish Hamilton 2014)
This book is not to be confused with Lily Brett’s similarly titled New York, published in 2001, even though both are collections of essays about New York. There are similarities of course, but whereas New York‘s essays were each exactly three pages long, and geared primarily to a German readership (they were first published as columns in the weekly newspaper Die Zeit, translated by Melanie Waltz), the essays here are much less constrained, ranging from two to 10 pages, and don’t have any sense of the deadline pressure that’s often found in newspaper columns (though at least one of them, ‘Falling in Love in Cologne’, has appeared in Die Zeit). Many of the essays read as if they were partly written in Lily Brett’s head as she went on long walks in Manhattan. Not that she’s a flâneuse, as her opening sentences make clear:
When I go for a walk in New York, I like to have a destination. Actually, I like to have a destination wherever I am when I go for a walk. I am not one of those aimless walkers, people who can stroll around from place to place without a plan.
Many of the essays start with naming a destination: Grand Central Station, Spandex House in the Garment District, Caffe Dante in Greenwich Village, her father’s apartment block. Occasionally, as when her eldest daughter is in labour, there’s no destination, but it’s still not aimless wandering, but walking ‘around and around the block, with increasing speed. For hours.’ Apart from the streets and people of Manhattan (the other boroughs don’t get a look in), the book returns to a number of subjects: Brett’s family – mother, father, husband, children – her Australian connections, her many neuroses and anxieties. Much of the book’s considerable charm comes from the way the essays veer off in unexpected directions – like a purposeful but totally distractable walker.
In an essay that starts out apparently about Brett’s incompetence at sewing, she confides that she is ‘not the kind of person who can lounge around the house in a sweatshirt’, and goes on:
My mother was well dressed all the time. Even when she cleaned the house. She polished the floor and scrubbed the kitchen in a silk blouse, pleated skirt and high heels.
Then, without missing a beat:
After her world cracked and splintered when the Nazis invaded Poland, my mother was never the same. She could never relax. She was always on guard. It was as though she needed to be prepared for any eventuality. And I have inherited that need.
We can enjoy the image of Brett’s mother’s eccentricity. But we’re not to trivialise her. And that’s true of the book as a whole. I laughed a lot. Brett’s nonagenarian father is very funny, but he is a triumph of the human spirit. New York is full of absurdities (customers are called ‘guests’, dogs wear shorts, psychics abound) but you never know what you’ll see if you keep your eyes open.
At a Sydney Writers’ Festival a couple of years ago Inga Clendinnen said that whereas a novelist plays Catch-Me-If-You-Can with the reader, an essayist invites the reader to come for a walk. She could have had this book in mind.
Only in New York is the ninth book I’ve read as part of the 2014 Australian Women Writers Challenge,